From NOAA (Bruce Bauer):
Most of us learned as children that the age of a tree could be found by counting its rings. Rings of trees growing in temperate climates can indeed tell their age through their annual rings and also help determine the age of wood used to construct buildings or wooden objects. The ages of wooden objects can be revealed by cross-dating, the process of matching ring patterns between wood samples of known and unknown ages.
What do tree rings tell us
The underlying patterns of wide or narrow rings record the year-to-year fluctuations in the growth of trees. The patterns, therefore, often contain a weather history at the location the tree grew, in addition to its age. In dry environments, such as the Middle East or U.S. Southwest, tree rings typically record wet or dry years, and in cooler areas (high latitudes or high elevation), the ring widths are often a proxy for temperature.
Archeologists have used the ring patterns in building timbers to estimate construction dates for some of the world’s most famous buildings, including the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park (nearly 1,000 years old) and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (nearly 1,500 years old).
What’s in NOAA’s tree ring data base?
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) houses the International Tree-Ring Data Bank (ITRDB), which contains ring width data from forests worldwide, plus ring width data from old buildings, and even from rare Stradivari violins. The ITRDB contains ring width data from trees at over 4,600 locations on six continents, providing tree growth histories from around the world. New additions from field scientists are added regularly.
Climate scientists compare the tree growth records to local weather records. For locations where a good statistical match exists between tree growth and temperature or precipitation during the period of overlap, the ring widths can be used to estimate past temperature or precipitation over the lifetime of the tree.
In many parts of the world, trees can provide a climate history for hundreds of years, with some extending back 1,000 years or more. The resulting climate histories enhance our knowledge of natural climate variability and also create a baseline against which human-induced climate change can be evaluated. NCEI archives these climate reconstructions in addition to the tree ring measurements.
Glimpsing the past
Tree ring data have been used to reconstruct drought or temperature in North America and Europe over the past 2,000 years. For example, tree ring based drought reconstructions for the American Southwest indicate a period of prolonged drought in the late 1200’s. Archeologists believe that the drought was a contributing factor in the Ancestral Pueblo People abandoning the famous cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, never to return.